© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The NHCS Turnaround Task Force hears from parents about pending job cuts, support for mental health

NHCS parents who signed up to speak to task force members
Rachel Keith
NHCS parents who signed up to speak to task force members

Last month, the New Hanover County Schools Turn Around Task Force, a group created to support the district’s lowest-performing schools, heard from around a dozen parents. Top concerns included proposed job cuts and supporting student mental health and multi-language learners (MLLs). Politicians have paid a lot of lip service to parents’ voices — so will they be listened to?

Parent concerns

At the Board of Education building off 13th Street, three groups of parents rotated through tables of task force members.

A district parent of a sixth-grader said she was concerned about the political attacks on social-emotional learning.

“All of her friends are on some sort of anxiety medicine, and they are 12 years old,” she said but added that the teachers and staff at her daughter’s school are very supportive — mainly pointing her concerns to the politics surrounding education.

“I am super concerned about what I see in the school board meetings, very concerned about where I see our culture going,” she said.

Task force member Scott Whisnant asked the parent to describe what social-emotional learning gives students.

“[It’s asking]: How are we feeling? Like how they welcome the children and talk about what's going on. And they know that this kid's struggling, and they know that this child's father just died. And it's not a scary thing,” she said.

While the battles over the culture wars continue, the school board has to deal with more concrete problems — notably, a $20 million hole in its budget. That’s partly due to expiring federal COVID relief funds, declining student enrollment, and the increasing cost of employee benefits.

A parent of a high school student at the Career Readiness Academy at Mosley wanted to report that her son has been thriving in that program.

“It has been our savior; it's a smaller environment. [Before] he wouldn't even go to the cafeteria; he would hide in the library.”

She added that she’s grateful that the high school program will remain open but doesn’t want the district to go through with the proposed job losses for the upcoming school year: “I don't want to see positions cut or programs closing because they're too important.”

For now, the district proposes cutting about 280 positions —about 80% will be from school personnel, and the rest will come from the Central Office. That translates to losing about 8% of the district’s personnel.

Another parent who has three children at College Park Elementary said she, too, is concerned about the proposed cuts to academically and intellectually gifted (AIG) staff, special education teachers, social workers, and therapists.

“I think we have to stop viewing them as secondary roles that can be cut — into these roles as primary to our kids’ success in education,” she said. And if these position cuts go through, it could cause a safety issue. “Just [recently], we had an incident where a kid brought a phone to the bathroom to film another fight. And you're like, alright, this is unacceptable,” she said.

The College Park parent said she doesn’t blame the staff, but an outside culture entering the schools.

An International School at Gregory parent focuses on the proposed decrease of mental health providers in the schools.

“How is that going to impact the school? We're going to see increases in symptoms and behaviors, and that's concerning for all of our kids, teachers, and staff,” she said.

Another issue that plagues some district schools is the difficulty of creating strong parent-teacher organizations (PTOs) when most parents are working or aren’t native English speakers.

A parent of a first grader at Wrightsboro Elementary said she and another parent are the only two adults who could start a PTO. She said they had to cancel their spring fling recently because they couldn’t get enough parents to sign up.

Wrightsboro has a high multi-language learner (MLL) population (about 40% of its student population), and the PTO member said there’s a need to have interpreters at future parent nights.

“My daughter, one of her good friends, her parents speak strictly Spanish, and it's tough,” she said.

Another parent of a Gregory student discussed the root causes of academic disparities among the district’s schools.

“The data I've found supports the need to disperse behaviors among more stable schools and demographics. And a lot of it is, unfortunately, Wilmington itself is very segregated; it continues to be segregated,” she said. “These are issues that are beyond our control, other than redistricting. We chose to go to a neighborhood model years ago; we knew that it was damaging, and yet we continue to do that.”

While some of the lowest-performing schools' report card grades have improved, there are still wide discrepancies between the top and bottom-performing schools.

Take, for example, the elementary scores on last year’s end-of-grade tests. The top nine performing schools scored anywhere from 35 to 46 points higher than those who attended the bottom nine. Free-and-reduced lunch student populations are also concentrated in schools that score lower than average.

Elementary scores on end-of-grade tests
Scott Whisnant
Elementary scores on end-of-grade tests

Tough stories

For the parents, some of the traumas the students encounter within these schools are difficult to hear. One Alderman Elementary parent said one student in her daughter’s class was homeless.

“He also had a lot of trouble, but if a teacher doesn't have the time, the space, the ability, the skills to handle that, and they can't get in with the counselor, it's like, well, that's not only impacting just him that's impacting everyone,” she said.

But this parent added that she’s glad her daughter is interacting with all different types of kids.

“We're very open in our worldview. We talk to our children about these things versus pretending they don't exist,” she said.

One parent had a foster child at Bellamy, another at Alderman, and another parent adopted three of his foster kids, all attending different schools in the district.

Both parents said they were happy with the support they’ve received at the schools but took issue more with the lag in support provided by the Department of Social Services (DSS).

A spokesperson for the county said in response, “Although Social Services serves families, the direct medical or mental health services that are being facilitated are provided by the mental and medical health providers in the communities. Often it does take time to get in with those providers due to capacity. However, to the foster parent, it could appear that [Health and Human Services] the cause of that lag, since this team is facilitating the process.”

They added, “Our goal remains to provide the highest level of assistance to those we serve.”

One parent shared harrowing stories of physical and sexual abuse his three children endured before he and his wife adopted them. Sadly, his wife recently passed away from COVID-19.

“Now it's just me. So I do everything, from teaching them everything to cooking to cleaning to teaching them the basics, but as far as school-wise, they’re all making good grades. I'm very happy,” he said.

Task force members reflected on what they heard from parents

Member Natalie English, President and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said the parents were happy with the changes in leadership at some of the schools and added that they “would like to see more transparency and less defensiveness when questions or concerns are brought up.”

Marrio Jeter, who heads the task force’s community engagement subcommittee, said, “We heard the theme of the ‘whiter’ the more successful school is, and the more diverse [the] population, the lesser they are being successful.”

Some of the task force members/attendees.
Rachel Keith
Some of the task force members/attendees.

He reflected a need for Spanish-speaking positions, parent liaisons, and document translation services.

He reported that most parents agreed: “There seems to be an issue with choosing not to fund schools appropriately at this point because we know that things need to change,” Jeter said.

Whisnant said that the parents of AIG students in these schools also need support.

“We had some AIG parents who said they’re big supporters of public schools but [said] ‘I can't let my kids become martyrs to the system.’ Something we have to remember is that if we don't meet those parents' needs, we're going to lose that enrollment, and that's an enrollment we have to keep because those parents generally have options,” Whisnant said.

School board member Hugh McManus and Chair Pete Wildeboer were in attendance. McManus claimed that the district passes students who haven’t achieved proficiency.

“The worst absolute thing we could have done is pass so many kids, I don't have an answer to that,” he said.

McManus reiterated that some lower-performing schools should be year-round, and those students need more opportunities to attend field trips.

“These kids have never been exposed to things that can make them start to dream,” he said.

Federal funding for special education lacking

While parents expressed concern over the proposed loss of 81 exceptional children employees for the upcoming school year, Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam said federal funding for children with disabilities has been lacking.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that governs services for children with disabilities in the school setting.

According to Varnam, the legislation says that Congress will fund 40% of what it takes to implement IDEA in schools; however, “Historically, Congress funds 15% every year, so we do not get the money that that IDEA says we should have. And a special education or EC director is not allowed to lobby for those funds. That's a part of policy," she said.

Varnam said the general public and the parents of children with disabilities should talk to their federal representatives, including Congressman David Rouzer.

Varnam said that since IDEA hasn’t been fully funded in over 20 years, local and state budgets have had to fill the service gaps. She estimates the district should be getting millions more in federal funding.

Mental health subcommittee recommendations get more granular

Whisnant, one of the leaders of the mental health subcommittee, put costs to some of the ideas presented at the last task force meeting in January.

Scott Whisnant presenting to task force members.
Rachel Keith
Scott Whisnant presenting to task force members.

Those include $7.2 million over three years, including one-time costs of $976,000 for various school staff training and behavior support. They also include recurring costs to expand the Freedom School model, additional behavior support, family liaisons, establishing a funding stream for the Friends of Public Schools non-profit, and creating New Hanover Promise, where Cape Fear Community College tuition, books, and other fees would be fully paid for those high schoolers who achieve a certain grade point average.

The mental health subcommittee's proposed asks as of March 13, 2024.
Scott Whisnant
The mental health subcommittee's proposed asks as of March 13, 2024.

At the last task force meeting, the 501(c)3 “Friends of Public Schools” was created under the umbrella of Cape Fear Communities in Schools. That would allow it to qualify under the Endowment's requirement that non-profit grant recipients have at least a two-year history.

The hope is to assist 16 high-poverty schools, which would be like a “global PTA.”

For example, parent-teacher organizations at some low-performing schools can’t raise funds like the Wrightsville Beach Elementary School Foundation, which raised $146,000 last year and has close to $228,000 in assets. The WB Foundation website says that recent funding opportunities include supporting a full-time teacher, a teacher-assistant, a part-time Spanish teacher, four part-time tutors, new basketball goals, equipment for the marine science program, and other technologies like iPads, Smart Boards, and document cameras.

As a PTA for the whole district, "Friends of Public Schools" could eventually support higher teacher stipends at those schools and fund recognition efforts, professional development, and experiential learning/field trips. They even suggested creating “concierge services” where teachers could get car washes or tax support.

According to Whisnant, if Forest Hills Elementary's principal [Diego Lehocky] had unlimited money, “the first thing he’d do would be to hire a parent liaison on campus to help the school’s families.” He also suggested adding these positions at Snipes, Freeman, Wrightsboro, and Williston Middle.

The committee is also recommending universal pre-K in the district. However, they are still working out the funding for that request, as there are many factors, such as the preK teacher pipeline and providing adequate salaries for those teachers.

They also want to reinvent Snipes Elementary because the “open secret is Snipes as a magnet is not working,” Whisnant said, meaning the school is not drawing applicants from outside its boundaries. The idea is to turn the school into a “Habits of Leadership” magnet, modeled after Combs Elementary in Wake County, which improved that school’s academics with its adoption.

The subcommittee also suggests that 12 schools get funding for a classroom behavioral management program (CHAMPS).

They also wanted to examine how the district contracts for mental health services. For now, elementary and middle schools contract with the county health department to provide mental health therapists at a significant cost to the district—$680,000.

Varnam said, “In the past, before contracting for school-based mental health, we used community partners, where there was no cost to the parents or the school district. It was billed to insurance, public or private, but it did not cost parents or the school.”

Whisnant responded, “We have to investigate that. Why can’t we go back to that system? Was it not working? What we heard is that there is a huge waiting list.”

What’s next

The next meeting is scheduled for June, but Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrice Faison asked the task force if they would do their part in supporting schools during the May teacher appreciation week, which is May 6-10. She suggested providing lunch or giving the teachers something special to brighten their day.

Prior reporting on the Turnaround Task Force

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR